For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/18/08
Risk assessment training? Again?
This is an oft-repeated refrain following the preventable death of another child known to the Division of Family and Children Services. According to media reports, 16-month-old Amiya Brown was treated in an emergency room for a fractured arm and leg. The hospital summoned DFCS, which sent Amiya home with her mother. DFCS apparently did so based upon the mother's allegation that Amiya's injuries occurred while under her grandmother's supervision. No further examination of the circumstances of her injuries was undertaken at that time.
Nine days later, Amiya was dead, without benefit of even a single visit by DFCS to check on her well-being. Let me be clear. No one at DFCS killed Amiya. Our criminal justice system will attend to those responsible for ending Amiya's brief life. But no one should be satisfied that risk assessment training is anything close to the appropriate response to DFCS' actions in Amiya's case.
There will be those who criticize my speaking out as bitterness following my removal in 2007 as state child advocate. I have no regrets about my time in service to the children of Georgia. But I cannot stand idly by following the death of yet another child known to DFCS who might be alive today if common sense were the basis on which decisions are made.
It does not require the wisdom of Solomon, a master's degree in social work or a sophisticated risk assessment tool to see, very clearly, that Amiya was in serious danger of grave harm. A 16-month-old baby arrives in an emergency room with not one, but two fractured limbs and the child's parent offers only a vague explanation as to what occurred. Absent some clear and verifiable reason for the trauma (such as a car accident), further investigation and caution are obviously required before the baby goes home with that parent. Surely those directly involved in Amiya's case sensed danger. Did something else factor into the decision to send Amiya home rather than place her with a suitable relative or, failing that, into foster care until sufficient facts were known?
Child welfare stakeholders assert that a management-imposed quota exists to artificially limit the number of children who enter foster care. Foster care isn't cheap, and federal funding for it has been dwindling for years, thereby raising the states' financial burden. Child protective services staff thus labor under strong and sustained pressure not to bring children into foster care, to quickly reunite those who do enter care with their birth parents, and face disciplinary action, including termination, if such mandates are not met. Any legitimate inquiry into Amiya's death should honestly ask the larger question of whether such a culture enters into daily decision-making at DFCS, and specifically, whether it was an implicit factor in the decision to send Amiya home.
To be sure, if a county were to have an inordinately high number of children in foster care given its population size, further examination would be warranted. It is a great tragedy for any child to enter foster care unnecessarily.
Similarly, those most at risk of significant harm (very small children from birth to age 3) must be protected from abuse. Quota considerations have absolutely no place in what ought to be case-by-case determinations of a child's safety.
The Georgia Department of Human Resources, led by Commissioner B.J. Walker, is the parent agency to both the Division of Family and Children Services and the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases. Where is the leadership to demand better of this department within both divisions? The substandard psychiatric and medical care received by the poorest among us, including children, at our public mental health facilities is well-documented, both by the media and by our federal government. How can our governor seriously lay claim to a "New Georgia" and status as the "best managed state in the nation" while doing so little about conditions of which all Georgians should be ashamed?
Senate Resolution 363, to create an independent commission to review and recommend meaningful transformation of our mental health system, was passed by the General Assembly in 2007. It was promptly vetoed by Gov. Sonny Perdue because it did not include representation from the Department of Human Resources/Division of Mental Health. In turn, Perdue created his own commission and this time appointed more of its members than any other official, including DHR Commissioner Walker and Abel Ortiz, his former policy adviser, as its chairman.
On the heels of a damning, 65-page federal report on the conditions in our state mental hospitals that will be expensive to correct, we learn that the commission's "own" report, prepared by an unidentified, now former DHR staffer, was substantially plagiarized.
Good grief. Why was a DHR employee charged with the task of drafting the commission's report —- a report about an agency under the DHR commissioner's supervision, and the subject of the commission's review? Such an obvious conflict of interest suggests that the commission's creation was window dressing to begin with.
Where does it end with the Department of Human Resources?
> Dee Simms is the former Child Advocate of Georgia.